By lyndaswindells, Jan 5 2016 04:14PM
Most of know the importance of a well-fitted saddle on our horse but of equal concern, yet often overlooked, is the soundness of the actual saddle itself. As a saddle fitter, I see lots of saddles that ‘fail’ the soundness test before they even get anywhere near the horse! An unsound saddle can cause irreversible mental and physical damage to a horse so shouldn’t be ignored.
It is worth checking your saddle for soundness on a regular basis as many things can cause damage to a saddle, including incorrect storage, dropping, horses falling on them and it has even been known for brand new saddles to come out of the factory in an ‘unfit’ state!
Here are a couple of checks you can do yourself to see if your saddle needs professional attention.
1. Checking the tree for breaks.
To check the tree, put the pommel of the saddle against your thigh and grasp the saddle behind the cantle with both hands. Pull the saddle firmly towards you. Ideally there should be no give at all. If your saddle has a spring tree (this is sometimes marked on the leather somewhere, or you may know it has a spring tree from when you bought it new), there may be a small amount of ‘spring’ but this will be quite slight. If there is a lot of give, and sometimes the leather on the seat will crease, this can indicate that your tree is broken. This is a serious issue and you should NEVER use a saddle with a broken tree on your horse as it will cause significant damage and discomfort. If you have any doubt, get a professional to check it out. Sometimes the panels will need to be removed to see for sure but if there is a lot of play, it is pretty conclusive. A broken tree can be replaced but this is usually a fairly expensive job and depending if an original tree can be sourced, it may change the ‘feel’ of your saddle slightly.
2. Checking the headplate/gullet.
This is another area that can be susceptible to breaks. Place your hands either side of the pommel and use a ‘push and pull’ action to check for breaks/damage. There should be NO give at all in the headplate/gullet. Unlike with a spring tree, if there is any give at all it indicates a cracked/broken headplate/gullet. A broken headplate/gullet can be caused by similar reasons as a broken tree, but it has been known to be caused by a saddle that is too narrow for the horse. The constant action of the shoulder blade banging against the points, over time can cause the headplate/gullet to weaken and crack. Knowing that the headplate/gullet is usually made of metal gives you some idea of the discomfort this must have caused for the horse! Again, a saddle with a broken headplate/gullet should NOT be used on a horse. This can also be repaired/replaced. Depending on whether or not there is damage to the tree will determine the price of a repair.
3. Checking for a twisted tree.
This can be a tricky one to check. The reason being, sometimes the stitching/piping can be slightly over to one side or the nails can be positioned irregularly giving the illusion of a twist. To check for a twist, it is best to place the saddle on a level saddle rack or similar. I find using electrical tape (or another marker that won’t damage the saddle) is good to check things line up. Place a strip of tape at the front of the saddle making sure it is central, and coming back over the pommel. Then place another strip of tape at the back of the saddle behind the cantle, making sure it is central. Don’t always rely on the stitching to line up your tape as this can sometimes be off-centre! Once you have the tape in place, stand directly behind the saddle and see if the pieces of tape are in line. As I said, this can be a tricky one to be certain about. Sometimes the only way to be certain, is to remove the saddle panels and place the tree on a flat surface to see if it is level. Wooden trees can be very susceptible to twisting due to the organic nature of wood! Twisting can be caused by mounting from the ground, incorrect storage, extremes of temperature and humidity/dampness, even an uneven rider or horse can cause a tree to twist over time.
4. Checking the panels.
The panels on your saddle need to be checked regularly as this is the surface that is against your horse. Turn your saddle over and run your hands/fingers over the panels firmly. You need to check for evenness, are the panels even or is one ‘fuller’ than the other? The panels should be nice and even. Are there any lumps in the panels? The panels should be reasonably smooth without any large or hard lumps. Think of what it’s like when you have a wrinkled sock in your shoe! Can you ‘pinch’ the leather? If the leather is ‘loose’ or wrinkled, this means it needs reflocking. Are the panels hard and flat? You want a nice firm, smooth panel, but if the panels are particularly hard and flat, this could indicate they need reflocking. Are the panels large and ‘sausage’ shaped? This can be a sign that they are overflocked. What you are looking for in your panels, is a nice, firm but slightly bouncy cushion. I always try and think, ‘would I be comfortable if this was against my skin’? If the answer is no, then it probably isn’t comfortable for your horse either! Some saddles are not wool-flocked, but use air instead, or felt or foam. These will obviously have a different feel to them but would need a whole blog to themselves!
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and if you have any doubts about the state of your saddle, please consult a professional.
Lynda Swindells is a Qualified Saddle Fitter and Equine Sports Massage Therapist based in Dorset. She offers independent saddle fitting as well as sales of new and secondhand saddles. Lynda can also undertake repairs and reflocks on most makes of saddles.